Bench helps new lineup work fine

SIDELIGHT

April 23, 1994|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun Staff Writer

Just when you thought you had their lineup memorized, the Orioles unveiled a new look last night.

Injuries, timing and matchups played a role in Orioles manager Johnny Oates' decision to call on a rarely used part of this year's team -- the bench.

Oates, who has said since spring training that he would rely pretty much on the same nine players from day to day, virtually cleared the bench last night. Lonnie Smith, Jack Voight and Tim Hulett got their second starts of the season at designated hitter, left field and second base, respectively. Jeff Tackett started for the first time at catcher.

"It's not a wholesale change just to get four new guys in the lineup," Oates said. "Some of it is by necessity. There is a reason behind every change."

Percentages dictated some of the moves. For one of the few times so far this season, the Orioles faced a left-handed pitcher, Seattle's Dave Fleming, so Oates wanted to stack the lineup with right-handed hitters. First baseman Rafael Palmeiro was the lone left-handed batter to start.

Minor injuries to Mike Devereaux and Mark McLemore also figured in the juggling. Devereaux left Thursday's game with a strained groin and was replaced by Voight, who homered in the eighth inning of the Orioles' 11-8 loss to California.

McLemore has been bothered by a sore shoulder and has been more effective from the left side of the plate. That combination cleared a path for Hulett.

Smith filled in for hot-hitting Harold Baines, whose chronically sore knees no longer allow him to play back-to-back games 18 hours apart. Baines should be in the lineup today against right-hander Roger Salkeld.

Tackett gave Chris Hoiles a break. Oates wants to limit Hoiles to 125 games behind the plate. Hoiles' average has dipped to .191, and since he is 1-for-13 lifetime against Fleming, the bench seemed like the ideal place for him last night.

Presto. Each of the four newcomers contributed significantly to the Orioles' 6-4 victory. In the first inning, Voight drove in two runs with a single, which was followed by Hulett's RBI single that helped Baltimore take a 4-0 lead. Tackett finished the Orioles' scoring with an RBI single in the sixth. Smith went 1-for-2 with a double, a stolen base and two runs scored.

Offense has been the most improved facet of the Orioles and has largely been the reason for their 9-6 start. They have averaged five runs, mainly with the same players.

But Oates also pointed out that he has the most bench strength since taking over the team in 1991. Before last night, Smith, Voight, Hulett and Tackett had combined for 14 at-bats, yet Oates didn't seem concerned.

"Our bench is much better than last year because of experience," Oates said. "Last year, we had Damon Buford and Sherman Obando, who had never played above the minor leagues. We had Voight, who was new, and Tackett was in his second year.

"This year, we've got guys on the bench who have been around the block. We know we're going to need them. Because of physical problems, we know these same nine guys aren't going to be able to play every day. I want to make sure I keep these other guys sharp and ready to produce when I need them."

Judging by the records of his bench players, Oates can depend on them. Smith is a 15-year veteran with a .289 career average who has played on four World Series teams. Hulett has matured into one of the league's more respected utility infielders. He hit .300 last year, the second straight year he has hit for a career-high average.

Voight's stock has risen considerably in one year. Last season, he became valuable by playing five positions. He hit .330 (29-for-88) over the season's final two months.

"Maybe our job doesn't start in the first inning, but our job is to be ready from the fifth inning on," Voight said.

"You want guys who are team-oriented, not worried about their financial stability, and most of all, guys who can produce," Oates said. "I've got decent guys who are team-oriented and who produce. That's having my cake and eating it, too."

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